Lonely Planet's greatest travel experiences: 40 years of worldwide wandering

To celebrate guidebook publisher Lonely Planet's 40th anniversary, writers and contributors recall their most memorable travel moments

Friday 16 August 2013 13:30

Strolling through rice terraces in Bali, Indonesia

Peter Grunert, Editor of 'Lonely Planet Traveller' Magazine

Go online and Google the words "Attenborough BBC archive" and you'll get a chance to watch my favourite television series of all time. This is Zoo Quest for a Dragon, in which an exceptionally young and posh David Attenborough stumbles wide-eyed through South-east Asia in a politically incorrect search for a menagerie of creatures – orangutans, fruit bats, gigantic Komodo dragons – to bring back to London Zoo.

Filmed in the mid-Fifties, it captures a special moment in history, as the chaotic evil of the Second World War faded and pretty much everywhere Attenborough covered lay far beyond his viewers' imaginations.

On the Indonesian island of Bali, he described "avenues of palm trees leading to villages, past terraced rice fields in what is, I suppose, one of the most beautiful tropical landscapes in the world". More than half a century later, when I had the chance to visit Bali for Lonely Planet Traveller magazine, I wondered just what the arrival of mass tourism on the island might have left in its wake.

Inland from the south coast's concrete resorts and maelstrom of traffic lies the town of Ubud. Setting out from here early one morning, I bumped into the very environment that Attenborough had so modestly described. Tropical fruits spilled from every hedgerow. A low mist clung to still‑pristine rice terraces, tended by waddling parades of ducks and egrets.

A farmer invited me to join him for breakfast, while his wife shooed cockerels and pigs from the yard as she hastily tried to get the kids ready for school. Despite everything, the island's innocence had endured.


Walking the cliffs in Ardmore, Ireland

Fergal Keane, writer and news correspondent

As a child, the cliff walk was a forbidding place of overgrown paths, the haunt of screaming gulls and solitary walkers gazing out to sea. I kept to the long beaches and the rock pools. But what joys I was missing! Back in Ardmore and long cured of my wariness, I headed out to the cliff. My grandmother always swore the wind here was a unique blend of sleeping pill, tanning agent and appetite creator.

At Ardmore Head, you gaze east toward the Waterford and Wexford coasts and the sea lanes to Britain. To the west lies Cork and, ultimately, the Atlantic passage to America. There is a little pillbox here, remnant of the "Emergency", as the Irish called the Second World War. Though Ireland was neutral, there was a constant watch for U-boats. To while away the nights, the men played fiddle and concertina down the radio to their comrades on watch up along the coast.

There are gorse-covered slopes here – brilliant yellow in spring – that tumble to the sea. There are choughs, puffins, herring gulls and seals. When I walk here, I am free. I am abundantly alive. I am home.


Finding a ghost town on Cape Verde

Dan Cruickshank, writer

Vividly contrasting nature: The 10 islands forming the nation of Cape Verde represent a world in miniature, as Dan Cruickshank discovered

The 10 islands forming the nation of Cape Verde represent a world in miniature. Set 350 miles off the coast of West Africa and arranged in a horseshoe shape, the islands include mist-capped highlands, jungles, rolling plains, beaches the size of small deserts and cities that date back to the 15th century, when the islands became a prized Portuguese colony.

I travelled through them, experiencing the vividly contrasting nature of each one, until I finally arrived at Sal. It's Cape Verde's "resort" island, the one best known to tourists, and is little more than a large, flat and beautiful beach dotted with clusters of modern apartments, hotels and ports. Tame stuff – but things are never quite what they seem.

One of the pleasures of travel is discovery – those moments of surprise and of revelation. On Sal, I enjoyed a magic moment of utter surprise. Tucked away at one end I found a small port called Pedra de Lume, that for centuries was the centre of Cape Verde's once lucrative salt industry. Here, using slave labour and the flat crater of an ancient volcano, salt was extracted from sea water.

The pocked and bleached landscape around the port is almost lunar and virtually all its buildings, including a vast and gaunt winding house, are derelict, with a ghost fleet of rotting craft still awaiting cargos that will never now arrive.

All was astonishingly evocative, melancholic and beautiful – a memento mori and reminder of the transience of all human affairs.


Encountering wildlife on the Tour d’Afrique

Tom Hall editor, lonelyplanet.com

Tom Hall, editor of lonelyplanet.com, cycled across Africa and encountered a stretch of the route dubbed 'Elephant Highway'

The idea of riding a bicycle from one end of Africa to the other is the sort of lunatic notion that appeals to Lonely Planet writers. So, when the chance came to ride a section of the famous Tour d'Afrique cycle expedition from Cairo to Cape Town, I jumped at it.

My stretch took me from Victoria Falls – where I became the proud possessor of a wad of 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar bills – across Zambia and Botswana to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia.

This stretch of the route wasn't dubbed "Elephant Highway" for nothing, and in the 10 days I spent on it I encountered enough wildlife to last me a lifetime. Jumbos criss-crossed our path, sometimes looming at us from the roadside. And at night, the roaring of lions kept me awake and large lizards clung to my tent.

After 1,000 miles of wide-eyed pedalling, I was pretty reluctant to get off my bike in rainy Windhoek – I'd go again in a heartbeat.


Following in my father’s footsteps on Aoraki Mount Cook, New Zealand

Alex von Tunzelmann, writer

Alex von Tunzelmann followed in her father's footsteps on Aoraki Mount Cook, New Zealand

The guide did a double-take and looked at me more closely. "Von Tunzelmann? Shoot! I reckon everyone around here knows that name." No one with a name as weird and obscure as mine expects to hear that. Not least 12,000 miles from home, looking up at the snow-dusted peak of Aoraki Mount Cook in New Zealand's South Island.

We were seeking out locations from The Lord of the Rings movies for a Tolkien-themed story. The fame wasn't mine. From 1962 to 1966, my dad, Nick Tunzelmann, volunteered for mountain rescue here. It was an eventful job. On one mission, he was buried in an avalanche. His last thought before he blacked out was: "Damn, I haven't finished my Master's thesis." Luckily for the thesis – and, ultimately, for me – he was dug out alive.

The story made the national news. Such fame might usually last for 15 minutes, but in the mountains things move at a glacial pace.

Back in the lodge that night, watching the sunset tinge Aoraki's white slopes a peachy gold, I sent dad my congratulations. In the Southern Alps, his 15 minutes had lasted half a century.


Journeying to a ship frozen in ice

Philip Lee Harvey, photographer

I grew up on stories about Ernest Shackleton and all the great polar explorers, and had a really strong mental picture of what the environment they experienced might be like. Those tales of exploration are the reason I got into travel photography in the first place.

I had wanted to go to Spitsbergen for years. I was actually booked on a trip with my wife, but we had to cancel – for the nicest possible reason that she fell pregnant with our first child. A couple of years later, I got the opportunity to shoot a story on the Noorderlicht, a ship that gets frozen into the ice every year – just as the boats of the old explorers did when they wintered in the Arctic. The experience was great because I love riding snowmobiles and dog sleds.

It was an eight-hour snowmobile journey from the capital Longyearbyen to the ship. We rode through blizzards and white-outs and it was one of the hardest things I've ever done. It was really quite dark and we were sliding about on ice during the last part of the journey. I began to think: "This had better be worth it."

And then I saw the ship, lit by moonlight. It looked so eerie, sitting on its own in the middle of nowhere. I almost didn't want to get close to it because it was so perfect in its environment. It was exactly how I imagined it to be. Travel experiences are rarely like that – there's usually some disappointment involved somewhere. When you have held a mental picture of a place since your childhood and you see that it exists in reality, it really is a dream come true.

basecampspitsbergen.com; visitnorway.com

The sharks of French Polynesia

Tony Wheeler co-founder of Lonely Planet

A trip to swim with sharks in French Polynesia was the experience of a lifetime for Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet

Rangiroa is one of the biggest atolls in the Pacific, with only two narrow "passes" for water to stream in and out of the lagoon when the tide changes. Sharks – those clever creatures – have learnt to hang around the pass entrance for the outgoing tide, when fish from the lagoon are swept straight into their mouths.

Working on Lonely Planet's Diving in Tahiti & French Polynesia guidebook, I joined a scuba dive at Tiputa Pass. The boat dropped me off and I descended straight through the shark line-up. It was rush hour. Reef sharks, as scuba divers soon realise, are not interested in divers – they prefer something more bite-sized. I met up with sharks on 13 consecutive dives – it was the absolute experience of a lifetime.


Enjoying Spanish hospitality on Ibiza

Elizabeth Day, writer

When I went to Ibiza, I had the stereotypical fear that it would be filled with foam parties and glow-sticks. Instead, what I discovered in the north were beautiful white-washed villages and near-deserted sweeps of cliff-enclosed beach.

My favourite memory was finding a lively restaurant called Can Cires. When I arrived, the walls were being given a fresh coat of paint for the weekend's fiesta, where the villagers would sing and dance and roast a pig on a spit. The husband-and-wife owners were extraordinarily welcoming and insisted on giving us a tasting menu.

We started with their speciality, crostas con tomate – crunchy, twice-baked bread croutons served with fresh tomato and olive oil. We then had course after course of incredible food before ending with a glass of hierbas: a 25-per-cent proof alcoholic concoction of 14 different types of herb gathered from the mountains and left to ferment for a year in aniseed liqueur.

At one point, I'm pretty sure a pet parrot was brought out to sit on my shoulder (it's possible the hierbas had me hallucinating). It was one of those truly memorable evenings: balmy outdoor eating, easy hospitality, fantastic food and that hint of the surreal.

cancires.com; ibiza.travel

Learning to row standing up on Inle Lake, Burma

Marcel Theroux, writer

The Intha fishermen of Burma's beautiful Inle Lake are famous for their extraordinary style of rowing – they stand on one leg and wrap the other around a single heavy oar. It's fast and elegant, like a strange combination of punt, gondola and pogo stick. As soon as I saw it, I was desperate to have a go. One of the staff at the guesthouse where I was staying agreed to give me a lesson. Early the following morning, he arrived with a heavy, wooden, flat-bottomed boat and an oar. All the other guests came out to watch.

To the untrained eye, the Inle rowing style looks difficult. I can tell you from personal experience that it's harder than it looks. The wobbly boat was part of the problem. The bigger obstacle was me. I just didn't have the core strength or the balance to make one-legged rowing feasible. Meanwhile, the lithe Intha fishermen were scooting around the lake like aquatic Baryshnikovs.

I didn't fall in. That's as much as can be said in my favour. After a few minutes of precarious wobbling, I was dripping in sweat and convinced that I'd done permanent damage to my hips. And yet, I feel I've accepted a long-term challenge.

One of these days, I'm going to go back for as long as it takes me to learn how to paddle one of those damn things.


Sleeping in the wild, Outer Hebrides

Robert MacFarlane, writer

A few autumns ago, I walked across the Outer Hebrides, from the northwest coast of the Isle of Lewis down to the south-east side of the Isle of Harris.

Most memorable to me was the night I spent in the middle of the vast moorland that joins Lewis to Harris. Out there in the openness of the moor, at the end of a long day's tramp, and with some bad weather blowing in, I found two "beehive" shielings. They were beautiful structures – little corbelled stone shelters made of slabs of gneiss and mortared with living turf, perhaps six feet high at their domed tops. They were probably built in the mid-19th century, but to a much older design. Each had an entrance big enough to crawl through but, once inside, you could stretch out but not stand up. I used one for cooking the trout I'd caught in a nearby loch and another for sleeping in – grateful for the shelter they provided as the wind skirled hard through the night.

I slept unexpectedly well and woke only once, to the snorting and roaring of a red deer just outside the shieling – presumably put out that his usual retreat was occupied by a human.


For the full article from which this extract is taken, see 'Lonely Planet Traveller' magazine's September issue, available now (priced £3.80).

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